“Today is the 79th day,” Yevhen Kryvoruchko says as he welcomed visitors into the school basement that has been his home since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began.
Then he ducked down an uneven flight of stairs into the labyrinthine cellar. It was dark, chilly, damp – and home to 12 people, five cats, a dog and a hamster who have been living under School No. 172 since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24.
From the basement, Mr. Kryvoruchko and the other residents could hear the artillery and air strikes that battered the apartment blocks immediately west and south of them. The school itself was repeatedly struck, destroying classrooms and offices, though the basement below held firm.
“The building was shaking too much … we were just praying that some missiles wouldn’t break into our basement,” Mr. Kryvoruchko said as he walked over the shattered glass and splintered doors of the school he once attended. “Now it’s more safe, I think, because not too much of missiles are landing nearby.”
Safe is a relative word in Kharkiv, a city that has been on the front line since the first hours of this war, and especially in Saltivka, the embattled neighbourhood in the northeast of the city where School No. 172 is located. And while it’s now safe enough for journalists and aid workers to enter Saltivka, many of those who have been hiding in basements since the start of the war don’t feel it’s time yet to emerge from their shelters.
The Russian army made lightning gains around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, in the first days of the war. But as with the capital city of Kyiv, Russia’s plans for a quick conquest were thwarted by ferocious Ukrainian resistance. Fierce street-by-street fighting ensued, and Saltivka became the front line.
Most of Saltivka’s 500,000 prewar residents fled in the early days of the fighting. The thousands who remained found themselves stuck below ground as the battles raged above.
The desire to remain where there is at least some protection is understandable. Despite the Ukrainian gains, the sounds of fighting were still audible throughout Friday, with artillery regularly booming somewhere in the distance.
Mr. Kryvoruchko, a computer programmer who can solve the Rubik’s Cube in nine seconds, was a student at School No. 172 until his graduation last year, and his mother worked there as a secretary.
“I was in this school for 11 years, and somehow I’m here again,” Mr. Kryvoruchko says with a sad laugh. “Probably I can be here for another three months before our forces destroy Russian forces and make this war to end.”
Friday was the 79th day in which 10-year-old Maxim Tarasyk’s world has been restricted to the Studentska subway station beneath Saltivka.
Life in the Studentska station is anything but lonely. Maxim says he spends most of his time with five or six other kids his age, running around the cavernous Soviet-era station or playing games on their phones and tablets.
What he misses most is the ability to walk about freely and play with his friends above ground. “It’s very hard when there are long bombardments and we just wanted to go outside but we couldn’t,” he said, looking up from playing a martial-arts game on his phone.
Friday was gloriously sunny in Kharkiv, with temperatures in the low 20s. But amid the relentless sounds of artillery, it was much harder for parents to forecast whether it was safe enough to let their children leave the subway station. And so Friday was another chilly and dimly lit day below ground for Maxim and his friends.
At the start of the war, some 3,000 people took shelter in Studentska station, sleeping on the platform, on the staircases and in the wagons of two parked subway trains. That number has gradually decreased as people managed to flee the city. Others decided in recent days that it’s finally safe enough to return to their apartments, at least temporarily.
But many are reluctant to leave the station. “People are still afraid. There are people from the north of Saltivka that simply have nowhere else to go,” said Svetlana Fyodorova, the deputy manager of the subway station, who now jokingly refers to herself as the deputy mayor of the “town” of Studentska.
Ms. Fyodorova is responsible for co-ordinating with the humanitarian organizations that deliver food and other supplies, as well as with the police and ambulance workers that are frequently called in as tempers rise and medical issues multiply.
Of the remaining 250 residents of Studentska are 17 children, ranging in age from seven months to 15 years old.
The adults of Studentska say they can’t help but worry how the kids will emerge from this ordeal. “Of course, there will be consequences. They will afterwards react when they hear loud sounds. They will need to relearn how to live. War doesn’t leave you,” said Tatiana Plotnikova, a family psychiatrist who is among those sheltering in the station.
Ms. Plotnikova recently asked the children to draw pictures about how they saw their world. Dasha, an 8-year-old girl, drew herself looking out the window of a green subway car at a little boy playing with a toy car on the platform.
Above them were half a dozen falling bombs, marked with Russian flags.
For 79 days, Tatiana Trofimovna and Nina Sergeyevna have shared the dark and damp cellar under their apartment building on Saltivka’s ironically named Friendship of the Peoples Street.
It’s difficult for the two grandmothers, who came of age at a time when Russia and Ukraine were both part of the Soviet Union, to understand how a street named for the supposed friendship between Russians and Ukrainians could now be repeatedly targeted by Russian rockets and artillery.
Their nine-storey apartment building has been hit four times by various types of munitions since the war began – badly damaging the roof and blowing out the windows in both their apartments. Three other shells landed in the parking lot outside, destroying two cars, while another round narrowly missed the adjacent playground.
“I don’t know how we weren’t killed,” the 64-year-old Ms. Trofimovna says, showing cuts on her hand that were caused by flying glass. “They hit the school; they destroyed the kindergarten. They even hit the pet store,” she says, pointing around her scarred neighbourhood.
As she spoke on Friday, artillery once more boomed in the distance. “It’s our guys firing now. When it goes that way, we don’t have to react. But when it comes this way, we go back in the basement.”
The basement, like most of Saltivka, has neither electricity nor heat, though it does have running water. They have been living off food delivered by Social Assistance Service, a local charity that co-operates with Caritas Internationalis, a Catholic humanitarian organization.
The two women said they chose to stay in Saltivka even when their children and grandchildren left because they couldn’t envision leaving home.
A few blocks away from Friendship of the Peoples Street, Lyudmila Yurchenko was wearing the same clothes for the 79th consecutive day on Friday. The 58-year-old tram driver went to work on Feb. 24 wearing a brown sweater, black trousers and winter boots.
She finished her route in central Kharkiv that day – “Lyudmila Yurchenko’s route was the last one still running after the war started,” she says proudly – then went home to Saltivka and straight into the bomb shelter under her apartment block. Since then, she’s been too frightened to go upstairs to her sixth-floor apartment to get a change of clothes (though her neighbours recently gave her a pair of running shoes so that she could take off her winter boots).
Like others born in the Soviet Union and raised on the idea that Russians and Ukrainians were one people, Ms. Yurchenko still struggles to understand why her neighbourhood has been under Russian attack. “I don’t understand politics. I only understand that they are shooting this way.”
Saturday will be the 80th day of the war for Kharkiv, which just three months ago was flourishing as the high-tech capital of Ukraine.
The city of 1.5 million people remains eerily deserted, even as the sounds of war begin to recede with the success of the Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Central Kharkiv is not as badly damaged as the suburbs, but it still has its scars. The regional government said on April 14 that at least 503 civilians had been killed in Kharkiv during the first seven weeks of the war. The number has not been updated.
The regional administration building, on the city’s main square, was left blackened and windowless by a March 1 cruise-missile strike that narrowly missed doing much more damage. A nearby McDonald’s is missing part of its roof.
Even more noticeable is the silence – broken only by semi-regular air-raid sirens – that hangs over Kharkiv. Even on a Friday afternoon, only a trickle of cars move along the city’s broad boulevards. Most restaurants and shops remain boarded up as though the worst is yet to come.
One of those who has returned to Kharkiv after leaving early in the war is Gamlet Zinkovsky, a local artist who gained fame in Ukraine and beyond with his Banksy-style street art. On Friday, he was back spray-painting a garage in the city centre.
Mr. Zinkovsky said he wanted to return, and to get back to making art, to show that Kharkiv had not been defeated. “I hope my work is a signal that the life in the city is not dead. That normal life is coming back.”
Kharkiv goes underground: More from The Globe and Mail
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